The press and Dr. Faustus
In the old Dr. Faustus story, a young scholar bargains away his soul to the devil for promises of obtaining almost anything he wants.
The American media has done much the same thing with the Obama administration. In return for empowering a fellow liberal, the press gave up its traditional adversarial relationship with the president.
But after five years of basking in a shared progressive agenda, the tab for such ecstasy has come due, and now the media is lamenting that it has lost its soul.
At first, the loss of independence seemed like a minor sacrifice. In 2008, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews sounded almost titillated by an Obama speech, exclaiming, “My, I felt this thrill going up my leg.” Earlier, New York Times columnist David Brooks had fixated on Obama’s leg rather than his own: “I was looking at his pant leg and his perfectly creased pant, and I’m thinking, a) he’s going to be president, and b) he’ll be a very good president.”
For worshiper and former Newsweek editor Evan Thomas, Obama was divine: “Obama’s standing above the country, above the world, he’s sort of God.” TV pundit and presidential historian Michael Beschloss ranked the newly elected Barack Obama as “the smartest guy ever to become president.”
For a press that had exposed Watergate, Iran-Contra and the Monica Lewinsky affair, and had torn apart George W. Bush over everything from the Iraq War to Hurricane Katrina, this hero worship seemed obsessive. The late liberal reporter Michael Hastings summed up a typical private session between President Obama and the press during the 2012 campaign: “Everyone, myself included, swooned. Swooned! Head over heels. One or two might have even lost their minds. … We were all, on some level, deeply obsessed with Obama, crushing hard.”
Sometimes the media and Obama were one big happy family — literally. The siblings of the presidents of ABC and CBS News both are higher-ups in the Obama administration. The White House press secretary’s wife is a correspondent for ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
When Obama’s chief political aide, David Axelrod, went to work for MSNBC, Obama joked, “… a nice change of pace, because MSNBC used to work for David Axelrod.” Nor was Obama shy about rubbing in his subjects’ hero worship: “My job is to be president; your job is to keep me humble. Frankly, I think I’m doing my job better.” In Africa recently, Obama advised his traveling press corps to “behave,” then compared them unfavorably with the more polite and compliant media of an increasingly authoritarian South Africa.
Four hundred reporters even formed their own off-the-record shared email chat group, JournoList, to strategize attacks against Obama’s political opponents. AttackWatch.com (paid for by Obama for America) read like some sort of secret-police operation, asking readers to report any criticism of Obama, as it compiled “Attack files” in blaring black and red headers.
When President Obama kept open Guantanamo Bay or expanded the Bush war on terror, he was described as “anguished” and “torn” as he broke his earlier promises. Bad news like unemployment spikes or flat GDP growth was customarily editorialized with adverbs like “unexpectedly” — as if Obama’s setbacks surely were aberrant and would quickly subside. In one of the 2012 presidential debates, the moderator, CNN’s Candy Crowley, was so exasperated that Obama seemed to need help that she jumped in to challenge Mitt Romney.
Obama rightly assumed that when the Benghazi scandal surfaced during the 2012 campaign, the press would largely ignore it. Likewise, he knew that the politicization of the IRS would not warrant headline news. Ditto Fast and Furious and the NSA mess.
But then a Faustian thing happened. This year it was also revealed that the Obama administration had monitored the communications of Associated Press reporters on the suspicion that they were publishing leaks. For the first time, outrage arose: Liberal presidents were not, in Nixonian fashion, supposed to go after liberal reporters.
The Obama administration did not object to AP reporters leaking classified information per se. Indeed, it had leaked the most intimate details of the cyber war against Iran, the drone protocols and the bin Laden raid to pet reporters like the New York Times’ David Sanger and David Ignatius of the Washington Post. The election-year “exclusive” revelations of both usually portrayed Obama as an underappreciated, muscular command in chief.
The crime instead was that AP was freelancing and might publish leaks that were not always flattering. Since long ago the media had made a pact, it was natural that the Obama administration assumed it had a right to monitor what it had bought.
In one version of the tale, Dr. Faustus at least got 24 years of freebies before being hauled off to Hell. Our poor media did not even get five years of adulation before Obama called in their souls.
(Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His new book, “The Savior Generals,” has just been released by Bloomsbury Press. You can reach him by e-mailing: [email protected].)
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